Constitution forces state Supreme Court justices to play leapfrog


State Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta became the chief justice Tuesday, giving her a bully pulpit to speak for the court. She'll hold that post for eight months. Then Justice Michael Cherry will take over for eight months. Justice Michael Douglas has been the chief for the past eight months.

Can't the court find a solid chief justice and stick with him or her?

The blame for this hip hopping of chief justices rests with the Nevada Constitution, a sometimes odd document written in 1864.

Here's what it says: "They shall meet as soon as practicable after their election and qualification, and at their first meeting shall determine by lot, the term of office each shall fill, and the justice drawing the shortest term shall be Chief Justice, and after the expiration of his term, the one having the next shortest term shall be Chief Justice, after which the senior justice in commission shall be Chief Justice; and in case the commission of any two or more of said justices shall bear the same date, they shall determine by lot, who shall be Chief Justice."

This was drafted when there were three state Supreme Court justices and a coin flip would make one chief justice.

Today Nevadans elect seven justices to staggered six-year terms. Saitta, Cherry and Douglas are up for re-election in 2012, which is why they are sharing the role. One-year terms occur when only two justices are up for re-election.

Chief justices are the faces and voices of the court. They give speeches and broaden their contacts, including connections with potential donors. If they have an agenda, they can push it. Our earliest justices recognized the practical benefit to being chief justice.

But under this system, Nevada's chief justices have a reduced role with the Conference of Chief Justices, which studies legal issues of nationwide importance. It doesn't even bother appointing Nevada justices to committees, because Nevada's chief justice won't be chief justice the next year when the report is due.

Now I'm not suggesting the job be based on seniority. That leads to a dictatorship. But surely there's a better way to do this. In most states, chief justices serve six, 12 or even life terms.

Unfortunately, it would take a constitutional change that would be long and costly, and who would want to bear the expense?

The justices themselves agree this isn't the best way to choose a chief and may take the lead.

Justice Michael Douglas, chief justice during the past cash-strapped legislative session, said, "A six-year term is a good thing. That's enough time to effectuate change. But if you have someone who isn't a great chief, you know there's an end."

Justice Ron Parraguirre said all the justices have come to the conclusion that a six-year term would be preferable. "All the justices who have been chiefs agree that one year isn't long enough."

For the 2014 election, only two justices are up for election. Justice Kris Pickering will be the chief justice during the 2013 Legislature, and Justice Mark Gibbons will take over the next year.

The constitutional provisions of 1864 don't seem to be the most efficient way to run a court today. And Nevadans certainly aren't reluctant to change the state constitution, having already done it more than 100 times.

Usually I would resist changing the state constitution, or making policy through constitutional initiatives. Tell me, has education improved since former Gov. Jim Gibbons' "Education First" initiative passed in 2006? Didn't think so.

However, this chief justice selection is one oddity that deserves to change; and since it wouldn't cost anything, it might have a fighting chance with voters.

Just because something is constitutional doesn't mean it's right or effective.

Jane Ann Morrison's column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

 

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